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Developing Co-parenting Plans for the Holidays

The organization of parenting schedules during family vacations and festivities.

Parenting after divorce presents special challenges and complications during holiday periods. This is no surprise, given that holidays can be challenging even for two-parent co-resident families, with additional commitments and obligations, figuring out holiday plans, blending traditions and deciding where festivities will be held. These can be stressful periods for separated families, and there is a lot to figure out. Yet especially during the holiday season, mothers and fathers must do all they can to put aside their differences and allow their children as much parenting time as possible, for the good of all. Particularly for children, spending time with extended family members on both sides is very important, and they should be allowed to enjoy a stress- and drama-free holiday with both mom and her family, as well as dad and his family.

Because the added stress of holiday periods can lead to heightened conflict between divorced parents, it is especially important that parents make a concerted effort to cooperate for their children’s sake. It is not an easy task to make the holidays go smoothly. It is important to think in advance about some of the issues parents may face:

Dealing with Grief and Loss: The first set of holidays following a divorce is likely to be the most difficult because the parents are still figuring out what works, and what doesn’t, in terms of co-parenting. In addition, changes to and the loss of shared family customs, and the creation of new traditions, will elicit difficult feelings for all family members. Even if the divorce occurred earlier in the year and there has been ample time to deal with it, the first set of holidays are still going to present challenges. There is a grieving period that comes with the first holidays following a divorce, with the realization that things are no longer going to be the same. The first holiday season in particular typically tends to be a very difficult time for everyone in the family. While the children often have the most difficult time adjusting, the entire family is dealing with a sense of loss. Yet even though the parents are likely dealing with plenty of their own issues, the holidays are a time when it becomes more important than ever to attempt civility. This is particularly important because children are more sensitive around the holidays, because of the increased focus on traditional family events with the idea of everyone coming together to celebrate. The cultural belief of families coming together at such times is what causes children and parents to feel an acute sense of grief during the holidays, and to feel lost and displaced. It is vital that parents recognize that the priority should be on the needs of the child.

Making Decisions: There are numerous decisions that need to be made in terms of celebrating the holidays under the new circumstances of parental separation. How will the time be split? What traditions will continue and what new rituals need to be established? When divorced parents have unequal financial arrangements, finances may arise as an issue, as some challenging situations, such as one parent trying to outdo the other, may arise. Equity is important for children; there may be an agreed upon spending limit or parents may make an attempt to still give joint gifts. The gifts being purchased also need to be discussed so that the child isn’t receiving duplicate gifts. All of this requires communication and planning. The holidays may provide a critical opportunity for divorced parents to start learning to communicate more effectively in the interests of their children, and setting the tone for compromising and making joint decisions.

Negotiating Changes: With divorce comes change, and both parents and children struggle with the process of accepting that change. A large part of that may be developing new rituals and traditions around the holidays. Many parents have an open conversation with their children about which rituals are most important to them and how they are to be retained, with or without the other parent. In some cases parents try to avoid getting hung up on established traditions and focus more on creating a holiday that brings their children joy. Holidays after divorce do not have to follow the patterns of previous holidays, or conform to preconceived ideas about holiday traditions. They may involve children in entirely new activities. It is not always easy to move on from old traditions, as parents think, "This is how we used to do it." In moving forward with new plans, parents become role models for handling change for their children. Parents can also view new arrangements as a bonding opportunity as they create their own new traditions with their children. Many parents keep some of the very meaningful past traditions but also create new ones.

Spending Time Together: I recall my son's delight during the first summer holiday after my divorce when his mother and I spent an afternoon enjoying a game of badminton, after a difficult period of estrangement. Another one of the bigger decisions to be made during the holidays is the idea of divorced parents sharing some of the holiday time and traditions. There are potentially serious drawbacks to such sharing, but the potential benefits to children cannot be ignored. However, parents need to put serious thought into whether they can handle spending time together without any major tension or fights, and it is also important to have an up-front conversation with the children to ensure they are not given a false sense of hope. Children will enjoy an opportunity for time and traditions shared simultaneously with both parents, but need to understand that parents spending time together during a family event does not mean they are getting back together. A time frame on time together will lessen the likelihood of children assuming that parents are getting back together. It is also important that parents consider any extended family who may be present. For some families, extended family members may be the ones who cause tension. If grandparents on either side are going to be less than civil toward the ex, then problems will arise. Parents need to set the agenda and the tone in advance for how events involving extended family members are going to take place.

A well-designed co-parenting plan should spell out in some details the specifics of time arrangements during holidays, vacations and special festivities, with the particular needs of children considered in the first instance. Agreements with respect to parental communication, decision-making, accommodating changes, and spending time separately and together are essential to pre-empting tensions and crises during what is a special and sacred time for children and parents. Children will thrive when spending time with both parents and extended families, especially during the holidays. Keeping in mind the special challenges of co-parenting during family vacations and festivities is an important measure to allow them to do so during these special occasions.

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